Debate forming on how to reduce childhood poverty in Kansas

Governor appoints task force but advocacy group says administration’s policies are making the problem worse

0 | Children, Social Determinants of Health

— A child advocacy organization is criticizing Gov. Sam Brownback for restricting access to some programs that help low-income Kansans while more children and families are slipping into poverty.

Shannon Cotsoradis, chief executive of Kansas Action for Children, said recent changes made by the Brownback administration to tighten eligibility criteria for cash and child-care assistance programs are making it harder for some struggling families.

Cotsoradis cited data in 2012 KIDS COUNT report released on Thursday. It showed that the numbers of Kansas children enrolled in Medicaid and receiving food stamps had gone up significantly while the numbers receiving cash and child-care subsidies had gone down.

“You see this huge discrepancy in the data,” Cotsoradis said. “It just doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Angela de Rocha, a spokesperson for the Kansas Department of Children and Families, defended the administration’s policy changes as efforts to encourage people to become more self-reliant.

“I think we should be praised, not criticized,” she said.

According to the new KIDS COUNT report, 21 percent of Kansas children are living in poverty, up from 18 percent in 2007. The average number of children enrolled in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance (food stamp) Program rose to more than 136,000 in 2011 – an increase of nearly 40,000 since 2007.

Also, nearly half of all school-aged children in Kansas – 48.6 percent – qualified for free or federally subsidized lunches this year. That is an increase of almost 10 percentage points in four years.

Over the same period, the report shows that the number of families receiving cash-assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has been trending down. In 2011, there were 25,981 families that received assistance, down from 26,633 in 2007. Families receiving child-care assistance decreased to 19,735 in 2011 from 21,025 in 2007.

Officials at the Kansas Department of Children and Families anticipate that the TANF numbers will continue to drop. The official caseload estimate released earlier this month by the Kansas Legislative Research Department says the agency anticipates spending $2.4 million less from the state general fund to support the program in the 2014 budget year “due to the continuation of recent changes in policies.”

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Shannon Cotsoradis of Kansas Action for Children

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Cotsoradis said that explanation “confirms that they (administration officials) are creating barriers to those programs.”

But de Rocha said the declining numbers of families receiving assistance isn’t necessarily the result of the policy changes. She said it could mean that many have gotten full-time jobs because of the department’s insistence that they comply with job-search, training and part-time work requirements.

“It is either people who got a job or who don’t want to cooperate with the job-search and work requirements,” she said. “All we’re saying is ‘we’re happy to help you get back on your feet, but you need to find a job.’”

Cotsoradis said the changes to the assistance programs seemed at odds with Brownback’s campaign promise to make reducing childhood poverty one of his administration’s top priorities.

On Wednesday, the governor appointed a 12-member task force and charged its members to report back with “concrete ideas” on reducing childhood poverty.

“All too often in our state, children who are living in poverty today become tomorrow’s poor parents,” Brownback said. “Intergenerational poverty such as this affects our state’s long-term productivity and wellbeing. We need concrete ideas on how to change this pattern.”

The first task force meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday in the Kansas Board of Regents Conference Room on the 5th floor of the Curtis State Office Building in Topeka (map).



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